Last week we looked at some of the options for learning Spanish on and offline, and hopefully we are all making progress on our learning goals. But lets face it, for most of us living here as expats in Spain our needs for translating and using Spanish are often more time-pressured, and whilst we know we should be learning to understand everything we need to, now and then we need some shortcuts in order to get things done.

Of course many of us choose to live in coastal areas with high expat populations, and if you are not working with Spanish people daily you could go weeks or months at a time before you have to deal with the language question, and even then you can potentially solve your problems with money – pay someone else to help you deal with officialdom, access services like health and education privately in English, if you so choose. However, every now and then, everyone needs not only to learn some essential Spanish, but to know how to find out quickly what something means, or else get your point across yourself

Online there are two main competitive translation tools offered for free, and integrated into different services, these are Google Translate and Microsoft Translator (Bing translate). Both of these offer good, limited, gisting services – but if you use them to translate Spanish into English, you will quickly learn never to rely on them the other way around!

Microsoft’s service, which is the one integrated into Facebook, seems to me to be better, although it’s still mechanical rather than human, it can be useful to read comments in Spanish and so on, though you will find lots of Americanisms in translated documents.

Google translate is now integrated into gmail, which is handy when you get a message coming in and can translate in a single click. However both email and Facebook are places people write in slangy, chatty language that is often far from ideal for software to cope with, such as the use of the @ sign to denote both male and female, o and a ‘Hola Tod@s!’ – throws all automatic translation into a tailspin. And Google once suggested a translation of ‘breasts and potatoes’ for ‘mamas y papas’ – very glad that was not an outgoing message! Of course it cannot cope with proper names at all and attempts to translate them too, ‘Poor Jesus initiates his party’ had me confused for a moment, in a message about fiestas in a nearby pueblo.

Google Translate can also be integrated directly into their Chrome browser, and offers to translate any websites not in English – which works in a fairly limited and annoying way, missing and not recognising whole chunks of text, and of course ignoring anything in graphics, headers and so on. You are better grabbing the text and shoving it straight in to, or is another useful tool.

For specific words, or to break down phrases that seem to make no sense and might contain colloquialisms, is good, as an alternative to sitting down with a good old fashioned paper dictionary. And looking things up word by word is not only a good way to avoid making a fool of yourself, it also helps some of it to stick in the memory a bit better too…

What about letters? We all get things through the post we can’t identify, and if you don’t know whether its junk mail or something you have to pay urgently, you had better find a gestor or a bilingual friend… but those notes from school or from utilities companies, you can scan them and run them through an OCR programme, then paste the output from that into one of the translation services mentioned. OCR, (optical character recognition software), doesn’t always render things perfectly – especially mass printed poor quality circulars – so be aware that this can introduce even more potential errors, and garbled meanings, in your output.

And what if the translation you need is from Valenciano or another regional Spanish language? In that case, online resources are thinner on the ground for sure. One option is to use translations to and from Catalan – without wanting to make any political/historical comment on the relationship between the two languages, in practice they are similar enough that this can work OK, and both Google and Bing’s free services do a reasonable job of this. has quite a good dictionary, for specific words and phrases too.

Another option is to translate first into Spanish, and then into Valenciano. For example, has a wide range of online dictionaries including English to Valenciano – but the reference database for English to Valenciano is about a sixth of the size of the Spanish-Valenciano database, so you are far more likely to find the meaning you need by taking the longer route around.

Of course, if a document is important, particularly if it has any legal or contractual significance, no online service can beat the services of an articulate and intelligent fully bilingual human. It’s vital to remember this, because so much meaning can be lost. At best, software can offer you a fair translation – but a human touch can offer true interpretation, taking account of context, nuance, culture and intent in a way no machine can. Use online tools for gists at speed, but when the details count remember that language is truly a human feature, that no machine can quite yet compete with.

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